To read the story, click the image or follow this link.
And we're back! Sorry for the lack of Monday reviewage; it's the start of standardized testing season, and (as is not altogether unknown for me) it's snuck up on me. Some day, perhaps, I will get my act together... but that day is not today.
Still, I did act-my-together-get enough to get this review set to post! Click below for my thoughts on soulpillar's The Sun & the Rose.
Impressions before reading: I've had my eye on this one for some time, ever since the (then still-incomplete) story was first recommended to me. Between the elegant title, the simple but eye-catching cover image, and the way the description immediately provides an evocative hook (it starts: "An English knight married a kindly woman, touched in the head, who thought she was an alicorn. She was right"), I have very high hopes that this will be the kind of Human-tagged story I can really get behind--a rare commodity, but all the sweeter for their scarcity.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: Sir Gareth, an English knight from the War of the Roses, is happily married to a wonderful woman named Cecilia--who suffers memory loss, but claims to have come from a far-off kingdom called "Equestria" by way of a magic portal. One day, Cecilia is kidnapped and taken through that selfsame portal... and Gareth follows her into a land full of talking ponies, magic, and political intrigue.
Thoughts after reading: I was a bit disappointed to discover a number of writing issues with this story; although it's clearly been run through a spellchecker a couple of times (I am consistently astounded by how few authors manage even that), there are a lot of missing words, doubled words or phrases, and other editing errors--mostly the type I associate with going back to change or modify a phrase, but not completely fitting it into a sentence. Beyond that, though, word choice ends up being inconsistent in general. The perspective shifts between several characters, but mostly Celestia and Gareth; in Gareth's segments in particular, vocabulary varies dramatically, with the overall storybook-ish word choice regularly "augmented" with modern slang.
But having said that, I would still describe The Sun & the Rose as a story with conceptually good writing, insofar as it has a series of errors and slip-ups over the top of what is clearly a consistent linguistic tone. This "strong in principal, if not always in execution" theme continues through to the historical setting; while I can't claim to be an expert on 1400s England, there are multiple obvious anachronisms on display. But with that said, it's equally obvious that there was a basic understanding of the time period at play, even if that understanding was apparently imperfect (and in any event, some readers might be willing to write off any apparent historical inconsistencies as stemming from the mirror-world not being "our" Earth, in quite literally the same way that the EqG world isn't ours).
As for the story itself, it sprawls over a variety of subjects, but has two main themes: the politics of Celestia's return to Equestria, and the development and adjustment of both Gareth and Celestia to their new (and old-new) world. The politics side was competently handled, though admittedly a bit lackluster in presentation; there's plenty of scheming and conniving, but it's mostly presented as fait accompli, showing only the end results or climaxes of various intrigues rather than letting the reader see any of their development. The result works in terms of delivering action setpieces--of which there are many, and which strike a pleasant balance between too goofy and inappropriately dark--but does make the political acumen or long planning of various characters mostly informed attributes. Still, one thing this fic does well is present the reader with cause to re-evaluate various characters, major and minor, as it goes along, which helps paint the whole situation as pleasantly shades-of-grey.
As for the other part? I found the idea of the romantic aspect very interesting (Gareth and "Cecilia" being married, and Gareth torn between a desire to be a good husband and the great difficulty he has seeing her in this horse that speaks with her voice), but there were some issues in presentation, especially in the early going. soulpillar generally does a good job of holding a single perspective throughout a scene, but there are more than a few scenes where I found myself wishing that the other character's perspective had been used; Gareth, especially, is a complex enough character that his actions are sometimes unfortunately opaque when presented through Celestia's eyes, and several times character motives are left to be inferred through fairly vague actions. To return to the romance, though: this story does a commendable job of using the bestiality taboo as a serious plot point (which is not a phrase I ever thought I would type...), without turning it into a joke or treating the question as trivial. Gareth takes his vows to Cecilia seriously; he also has no desire to, in his words, "f*** a horse." Because this is approached from the relatable territory of matrimonial bonds, even I--someone not particularly kindly inclined toward human-pony romance fics by nature--found myself perfectly able to accept the nature of the central dilemma, and the way it ultimately played out.
But although I enjoyed the conflict itself, I was less enamored with the dialogue between them. Gareth and Celestia both have a tendency to get snarky and trade quips, especially later in the fic, in ways which seem at odds with their broader personalities. While this does serve the purpose of keeping combat and action scenes from getting too heavy (and while it never devolves into the endless cynical snark which haunts so many HiE stories), it nevertheless feels like an unfortunate choice to me.
I feel I should also mention the language barrier in this story, specifically that the ponies don't speak English. Because the perspective keeps shifting between characters who only speak English, only speak Equestrian, and those who speak both (and this is before we get into characters learning each others' language as the story progresses!), it would be easy for that aspect of the story to become a mess, but the author keeps things fairly clear--or at least, as clear as they are to the characters. Transliterated foreignese interspersed with "actual" word that the characters recognize and similar tricks do a good job of simulating the linguistic barrier.
One thing that caught me a bit off-guard was the pacing at the end of the story. From the start, the intensity varies in broad but appropriate ways--action scenes interspersed around learning bits of the local dialect ought to feel like it's ebbing and flowing in intensity, after all--but builds up and up to a dramatic climax, and nearly-paired conclusions to both the political and personal struggles of Gareth and Celestia... about 20,000 words before the story ends. What follows is a timeskip chapter that feels much like a traditional epilogue, followed by an "epilogue" which feels more like a short sequel, set around the time of the show. I didn't mind either of them (though watching Twilight jump through hoops to try to find out who this mythical "Gar-eth" was did get old after a while, since I as a reader already knew the answer(s) she was looking for, having just finished the story proper), though they did make for an awfully long combined denouement.
★★☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
This was a very ambitious story, and even if I think it fell short of its aims in a number of ways, it consistently fell short in interesting ways. And not "interesting" as in "ha-ha, it's a bad story, point and laugh;" more in a "shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you'll land among the stars" way. Well, or at least end up in geosynchronous orbit... the point is, in this metaphor, the story definitely wasn't in the "crash and burn" category.
Recommendation: If you enjoy the trappings of history, intrigue, and language, but aren't too caught up in their nitty-gritty, this is a fun mix of action and romantic drama. If you're the type who can't read around flaws or errors, though, this is the kind of story that will repeatedly break your immersion.
Next time: The Three Sisters, by Wanderer D